… for a little while. And I guess it wasn’t so much “the world” per se, as more of the contiguous United States (that’s everything excluding Hawaii and Alaska).
Procrastination pays off again…
… but only during off-peak season. Unfortunately, to get the privilege to reward yourself with hypoxia requires at least 6 months of planning. The National Park Service only allows 100 day hikers (per day) and 60 overnight hikers (um, per day). Unlike Yosemite, there are no walk-ins. As you could imagine, weekends get the most visitors. However, have a look over here and you’ll notice that not all who reserve actually show up. Any no-shows on the day-of, and you can yoink their reservations… but unlike Yosemite, it get’s even better: they’re free! The dudes that decided to not show up already paid for them, so you don’t have too!
I saw the gamble and took it. We arrived at the Permit Station just prior to 11am (when they figure out how many no-shows there are). There were 4 for this Saturday. Luckily, I think we were the only group looking to tackle the mountain through Saturday night. So for the 3 of us, we scored free round-trip hypoxia tickets to Mt. Whitney. A hearty “thanks” to whoever bought these for us by deciding not to show! (Granted, it’s only a measly $15 per person).
Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Trees…
The hike starts from 8,500ft (above sea level). The air is already thinning at this point; you may not notice it standing around, but start exerting some energy (like hiking a pack up a slope) and you’ll quickly find yourself short of breath with your heart racing. The only way to beat this and maintain consistency is a slower and very deliberate pace. I let my heart-thump and breathing set the pace, rather than push myself to some speed-walking record of taking 10 minute breaks for every hundred feet of climb. The philosophy worked. As we broke through the 11,000ft barrier (where the trees call “uncle” and cease to exist), not one soul had passed us, whereas we had passed multiple people and groups.
We were making pretty good time. Our overnight destination was the Moon landscape of Trail Camp. We’d looked at the weather prior to kickoff: clear, slightly below freezing, and 5mph winds at most. For that reason, we left our tents behind. It was gonna be under the stars for tonight! We arrived at our overnight stop just before sunset:
The site was just above 12,000ft. I guess this way we figure out who gets altitude sickness and who doesn’t. Luckily, we were all fine (minus Figo’s hands turning into a yellow rubbery mess for about 30 minutes). As we laid everything out, we were surprised on just how much this place was an actual base camp… just look at all the tents!
It was an early rise for us to tackle Whitney, so we were in bed by about 7pm. I wish I brought my camera for this adventure (I was using Figo’s Rebel and my iPhone for this post). Throughout the night as I stared at the Milky Way, there would be stars snaking down from the top of the mountain. It was really cool to see… what was really happening was that we were seeing the headlamps from hikers (that had probably taken sunset photos from Whitney) snaking their way down the mountain in the dark. It was cold, too… maybe around 25°F. I was decently comfy in my sleeping bag, but the thin air just seemed to bite at anything exposed (like my nose).
Benjo then announced “it’s 4:30am, time to get up” (in my best Kiwi accent) and we started fortifying ourselves from the cold as we attempted to pack up camp and get a hot breakfast. By 5:15am, we were on the trail being guided by our own headlamps snaking up the mountain. Nighttime mountaineering can be great because ignorance is bliss: if you can’t see the sheer drop within 2 feet of you, then it was never there! But after about 80-some switchbacks, the sun finally started to yawn above the horizon:
This was about the time the “way” became interesting. Sheer drops, windows to 4,000ft below you and gorgeous views set the precedent for the last 2 miles to the summit of Whitney. I definitely had my vertigo kick in (ie, the sense that the wind will blow you off of a cliff) with my forced response to suppress it.
A minor headache (probably from the altitude and exertion) later, and we were up the last 100ft of Mt. Whitney. Now, I know Mt Whitney is pennies compared to “real” mountains, but you gotta start somewhere. What blows me away is that Everest is twice the altitude of Whitney. Twice! But for the time being, I’ll relish in my small victory: reaching the highest place I’ve ever set foot on.
Ah, the finish line at last:
Figo (middle) says he’s achieved the highest Brit in America (for the 30 or so minutes we were there), along with his colonial slaves: New Zealand (Benjo) and USA (me). Whitney may have claimed our lungs, but she’ll never take our… ughh. OK. So, here I am to prove this isn’t made up:
It’s just too bad I couldn’t get to Death Valley within the remaining 6 hours to score the highest and lowest points in the continental United States within the same day. But stats aside? I feel extremely gratified with this weekend. Thanks all for the inspiration.